The White House has said it is exploring using police to remove homeless people from the streets, a vague threat that has escalated concerns about Trump pushing a law enforcement crackdown in California.
A new report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) said “policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing where they can get the services they need”. The policy document was published just before Trump’s visit to California on Tuesday and comes amid his increasing attacks on Democrats in Los Angeles and San Francisco over the homelessness crisis.
Trump further griped about the presence of homeless people while speaking to reporters on Tuesday, saying they live in “our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings” where people “pay tremendous taxes”. He said LA and San Francisco “destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening” and that some residents want to move away because of tent encampments.
The president further mentioned the creation of an “individual taskforce”, but did not provide details, saying: “We’ll be doing something about it.”
Advocates across the Golden State, which has a growing homeless population and severe affordable housing shortage, have urged the US government not to further criminalize people living in poverty and instead increase funding for housing and other services, some of which Trump has cut in his budgets.
The president, who is visiting the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles this week for fundraisers, has made his attacks on liberals in California a theme of his campaigning, and Democrats in the state have sued his administration dozens of times. Los Angeles’ Skid Row, an area considered the epicenter of the homelessness crisis, has also received increasing national attention, including a tour by Trump administration officials last week and a visit Tuesday by the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
The CEA report noted that almost half of all unsheltered homeless people live in California, and said that “policies such as the extent of policing of street activities” may play a role in why some states have larger homeless populations. The report also said “more tolerable conditions for sleeping on the streets … increases homelessness”.
Tom Philipson, the CEA chairman, did not elaborate on how policing could be used in a call with reporters, according to the Washington Post. It’s unclear if the president would have any legal authority to use law enforcement to move people from the streets, and homelessness is an issue typically handled by local governments.
Research has repeatedly shown that criminalization of the homeless, particularly sending people living on the streets to jail, is ineffective and costly. Arrest and incarceration can make it harder for people to find housing and can leave them with criminal records and fees that create new obstacles. Still, laws that prohibit “camping” on the streets are common in cities across the US, and officials in LA have been pushing for further restrictions on where people can sleep outside.
The CEA report noted that “policies intended solely to arrest or jail homeless people simply because they are homeless are inhumane and wrong”, but said “when paired with effective services”, policing can be useful.
“This approach contributes to the problem rather than solving it,” said Osha Neumann, a civil rights lawyer who has long advocated for the homeless in northern California. “The idea that we can criminalize our way out of a crisis that is the result of the failure of the system to provide basic human needs for a large percent of our population is ridiculous.”
Kourtney Milligan, a 29-year-old who has been living on the streets of Skid Row for nine months, said she wished the president would “change his tone” when he talks about homelessness.
“It’s very aggressive and very hateful. How about we just find a solution?” said Milligan, who was outside the Downtown Women’s Center when O’Rourke stopped by on Tuesday morning. “A lot of people who are homeless have been abused and hurt. We need solutions.”
She said police should not be used to kick people out, and that the residents of Skid Row needed affordable housing in the heart of Los Angeles, not on the outskirts of the city. She said she sleeps next to a building that is currently being developed for new housing, but that she doubts she’d be able to afford to live there.
“Skid Row is home for a lot of people. There is community here,” she said. “The problem is finding housing.”
Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, said the threats of a law enforcement crackdown were “consistent with the general approach of the administration – to cause as much pain and suffering as possible to people who are desperately seeking refuge”, adding: “They do it on the border, and now they are proposing to do it in the cities.”